The French Foreign Legion has been in existence since 1831, and it has been a difficult journey. Originally seen by the government as little more than a place to dump undesirables, it took a long time to establish itself as a viable military unit, and it has always been a difficult child of the French military. Often abused by those in charge, and suffering from the many different nationalities and characters that make it up, it gradually began to construct an esprit de corps and a tradition, built in places like Spain and Mexico, which gave it a feeling of self-worth and projected an image to the wider world that increasingly seemed exotic and even romantic. Yet to serve in it or to try and control it was always a huge challenge, and not without reason did many feel that the Legion got the worst and most dangerous jobs. Perhaps it was those incredibly difficult conditions that helped to build what was undeniably a tough fighting machine which did so much to support France’s colonial adventures during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Although the title of this set is rather vague on dates, we were expecting it to be for the 1920s, but a quick look at both the box and its contents showed that it was a more complicated beast than we had imagined. So, to begin with, let’s decide what part of the “early 20th century” we are talking about.
For the most part these figures are in what most would consider classic legionary uniform. They wear the heavy capote greatcoat and the majority have the kepi with sunshield. While the kepi is a traditional French item worn in many periods, the cloth sunshield, never an official item, was worn up to around the start of the First World War by the infantry, so we are talking pre-1914. Several of the poses wear a colonial helmet rather than the kepi, and this item was first introduced into North Africa units around 1900 (earlier in other parts of the Empire) and disappeared soon after 1918, so now we have a date range of 1900 to 1914, more or less. Other evidence includes the anklets all here are wearing, which replaced the old spatterdashes in 1897, and were themselves replaced by puttees during the Great War. In addition the habit of wearing a scarf or chiech became almost universal after the War, yet no one here has this item, so we can be confident that we are looking at figures dating to the first few years of the 20th century, up to but not beyond, the end of the Great War.
Having worked out the dating here, it should be pointed out that from 1909 the Legion started to be issued the Coloniale Blanche khaki uniform, so it lost the blue-coated appearance seen on the box over the following years, and by 1914 the men wore the much more modern dull-brown uniform. Also - a small point – the anklets here appear to be held by 3 straps, which is wrong. Until 1903 they were buttoned, and after that they were laced at the front, so this is a small error. Other than that, the uniform here is accurate (and only appropriate for North Africa – other colonies had very different uniforms that do not match those here).
Legionnaire kit and equipment did not change much over this period, and in this set every man apart from the machine gun crew is carrying a full pack. Such a pack consisted of a wood-framed knapsack, spare clothing and boots, extra ammunition, rations, eating and washing utensils, plus a tent section and associated accessories. It was a large and heavy pack, and it has been well sculpted here. Moreover, every eighth or tenth man had also to carry squad cooking dishes or a collapsible bucket, and two of these poses carry these items, so the proportions are very good. Each man has the twin ammunition pouches on his waist belt at the front, and the reserve supply in a pouch at the rear, but that is not the end of the men’s burden. Each man should have a haversack (musette) and of course the water container, the 2-litre bidon. Every pose here has the haversack, but amazingly several have no water container, a vital piece of kit if ever there was one. Also surprisingly there are no bayonet scabbards anywhere, and only three of the poses even have a bayonet fixed.
Moving to the weapons, these men should be carrying the Lebel rifle, which they probably are doing, although detail is not good enough to confirm this. However we have a real problem with the machine gun here, because it is the Hotchkiss M1914 model, which was only widely adopted in 1917. Clearly this does not match the appearance of the men, yet it is very nicely detailed and is obviously the 1914 model. There were earlier models of this weapon dating back to 1897, but they can be eliminated as they had a distinctive look that is not modelled here. This initially caused us some confusion over the dating of this set, but it is certainly wrong for these figures.
The set provides a generous 17 poses, all of which seemed appropriate to us. There isn’t a lot of action here, and while many battles were little more than static fire-fights in the desert, there was movement and even bayonet charges, so a bit more excitement would have been nice. A couple of the more interesting poses are in the third row – the man swinging the rifle and the one bayonetting downwards. Both are good ideas but here they are pretty flat, so look less credible in real life than in our picture. The figure in the middle of that row, about to strike with the butt of his rifle, is both a credible pose and has been quite well done too. The drummer (we were surprised to find three of this pose) is quite good too. He holds his sticks rather awkwardly, but no more so than many such drummers in other sets. The bugler we really liked, and also the kneeling officer, but there are no particularly poor poses here.
The anatomical proportions of these figures is very good, and on the whole they look very realistic. Detail is good, perhaps less so on the rifles, but the kit and the machine gun are very well done, as are the classic marks of good sculpting – the faces and hands. Aside from the fact that it shouldn’t be here, the machine gun is being served by two crew who are well posed, with the gunner holding the weapon correctly, which itself is easy to assemble. Unfortunately the gun is much too low for his hands, or more precisely his base means he is too high for the gun (or the gun is too low because it lacks a base). Equally, the second gunner is feeding the ammunition strip much too high for exactly the same reason. Added to that, the rear leg of the tripod means he cannot position himself behind the gun, so this must be turned on the tripod, which is annoying and looks messy. There is a little flash on these figures in some places, but of a low level.
Perhaps Strelets were vague about the dating for this set because they realised they had made a mistake with the machine gun, but leaving that weapon aside this is a set that depicts with reasonable accuracy the Legionnaires for the period 1900 to around 1912 or so. The lack of water containers on so many is hard to forgive, but the inclusion of colonial helmets is a first in the hobby for the Legion (apart from one Esci figure), so this genuinely brings something new despite the previous depictions by Airfix and Esci being attractive sets. We liked the sculpting and most of the poses, so despite the imperfections there is much to recommend here, and with so many big and small actions in Algeria and Morocco to recreate, this set has much potential.
Note The final figure is of a soldier from the Streltsi of 17th century Russia. Though he is unrelated to the subject of this set, he is one of a series of 'bonus' figures which when combined will create a set of this unit for the Great Northern War. See Streltsi Bonus Figures feature for details.